Five nights, 10 albums and 113 songs celebrating 30 (32) years in the business: Neil Hannon’s Barbican residency was by any measure an extraordinary achievement. Our editor dispenses with word counts…
Thirty years is a long time to be doing anything. When it’s the length of your career in music (so far), it’s reasonable to want to mark the achievement, to take stock, to appreciate. Some bands might tour. Others might book a residency and play roughly the same set for several nights. Having turned 30 in 2020, Neil Hannon’s The Divine Comedy planned to mark the occasion by playing 10 albums, two per night, across five consecutive evenings, in both London and Paris. For this endeavour his expanded 12-piece band would learn and perform 113 songs. A monumental and beautifully produced limited edition box set, Venus, Folly, Cupid & Time, was released to coincide (it contains rather more than 113 songs). Hannon’s 2019 Top 5 (double) album Office Politics, having just been released and toured, would not be part of this live retrospective. All the same, this would all be quite an undertaking.
But then came covid, and the postponement of all things. A one-off, one-hour, socially distanced performance in the Barbican Hall in September 2020 was somehow squeezed in despite the pestilence, as the 10-album spectacular was postponed first to 2021, then again for 12 long months more. Finally, two years late and following a nearly normal festival season with the pandemic sliding down otherwise packed news schedules, the faithful could assemble to witness a showcase of Hannon’s singular career, with many and varied points of interest along the way. A full house awaited the start of the run, with Liberation and Promenade the first albums to be played in full.
Liberation and Promenade
Expanded to include what Hannon calls “the classicals” – strings, flute, horns – behind clear shields and a second guitarist alongside indomitable mainstay Tosh Flood, the band embarked on the album Hannon refers to as his first, Liberation, released in 1993. This sparse, bookish record ignited Hannon’s archly romantic culture vulture oeuvre. With Bernice Bobs Her Hair reworking an F Scott Fitzgerald story, Festive Road paying tribute to the TV series Mr Benn and all manner of other allusions and magpie pinchings, its arrangements give space for emotive strings to underline the lyrical wordplay Hannon would soon become known for.
While Your Daddy’s Car is played “how we like playing it these days”, Europop is “authentic”, rewound back to its roots from its 2019 tour retooling, setting us up for the juxtaposition of young Hannon then versus middle aged Hannon now. There would be several cringes at juvenile lyrics, sung by a voice now deeper which, while rich with gravitas, no longer reaches the top end with the ease it once did. Arranger and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Skeet conducts the strings on the mournful first outing of Timewatching (it would appear again on A Short Album About Love, played on the second night), one of several rarely performed tracks across this run which proves revelatory. There then follows “three songs about a girl I was obsessed with”: Queen Of The South, Victoria Falls and Three Sisters. All make the case for this band’s main touring sets to be radically varied, for none of these songs are much played now; tonight they’re all a joy. Lucy, the latter with its words courtesy of William Wordsworth, is rather more familiar to the assembled fans; a regular of the standard show sets, it ties neatly together Hannon’s talent for melody with his mastery of narrative.
After the interval, the concept album of sorts Promenade – its connecting story loosely characterised by its creator as a couple having a day out at the seaside – finds Hannon relaxing enough to fill in the narrative gaps. In opener Bath: “She gets up and has a bath!” It’s followed by Going Downhill Fast: “In this song the guy is cycling into town!” He half-jokingly offers the album up as the basis for a film score. The Booklovers typifies his oft-used list song technique, listing authors of note alongside quotes from film adaptations and, in some cases, jokily recorded impersonations to fill things out. Tonight it is dedicated to people who don’t censor themselves, with the final author’s name – the recently attacked Salman Rushdie – eliciting fervent cheers from elements of the audience. It was arch and pretentious when Hannon wrote it, but time and events work on art in mysterious, sometimes transfiguring, ways.
A Seafood Song – another of those jolly list numbers – serves to lighten the mood, while Don’t Look Down’s conversation with “a god, who really ought not to exist” atop a ferris wheel is simply fabulous, the arrangements the best so far. Hannon tells us he doesn’t know what happens between God appearing and the couple going to the cinema, the subject of the next track When The Lights Go Out All Over Europe. The Summerhouse’s very long notes are curtailed this evening, but the key change is one of those Hannon musical moves that makes the heart jump into the throat. A sublime Neptune’s Daughter with the band in full voice leads to introductions; he also mentions original arranger Joby Talbot, who is apparently in the audience, and asks for a G&T for the jolly A Drinking Song.
The mood changes again with the sparse Ten. On the album it leads straight into the final track but tonight there’s a break at its end, allowing for its own applause for the first time. Encore standard Tonight We Fly ends the main set, and the drums dominate everything other than Hannon’s words. With all the musicians appearing across all the performances regardless of the albums’ original set-ups, the arrangements are tonight in places a little too busy, and the drums – not placed behind those clear screens afforded “the classicals” – too often threaten to overwhelm the rest. It’s less of an issue in the encore, which opts away from era-specific rarities, instead dusting down the not at all rare Generation Sex and National Express, both from Fin de Siècle.
Casanova and A Short Album About Love
The second night brings us to Hannon’s breakthrough, and what might be termed his imperial phase. The year was 1996 and Chris Evans repeatedly played Something For The Weekend on his Radio 1 breakfast show. Hannon struck while the iron was hot, with the album Casanova and its short, live recorded follow-up A Short Album About Love, and racked up a slew of chart hits and very many new fans along the way. Tonight, as a concession to the style of the era, he opens his top shirt button and launches into Something For The Weekend and Becoming More Like Alfie, two irresistibly perfect classic pop songs that set the tone for what follows. As in the first night it’s the rarely aired tracks which earn the biggest applause; Middle Class Heroes is terrific, as is Charge, though the Barry White/Prince face-off familiar from the album is left out – which is maybe just as well.
The better known Songs Of Love (based on his theme for Father Ted) and single The Frog Princess find Hannon in particularly fine voice, even though he apologises for sounding like a wounded animal; he’s 51 and wrote these when he was 25, he reminds us. A Woman Of The World, a reworking of Breakfast At Tiffany’s in song form, is prefaced with Hannon admitting that, “like most sensitive young men”, he was obsessed with Audrey Hepburn. In Through A Long And Sleepless Night he sings into two mics at once; the second seems not to be connected, but it’s otherwise a thrill to hear this heaviest of The Divine Comedy’s canon blasted out in a live setting. The theme-to-a-TV-show-that-never-was, Theme From Casanova, switches mood once more, its swelling strings and lone horn melody as evocative now as on first listen, and might have completed the album perfectly, but The Dogs And The Horses’ beautiful if sentimental take on death brings a fine narrative close to the life of the album’s titular “Venetian gambler, eroticist and spy”.
After the interval, In Pursuit Of Happiness’s Tomorrow’s World theme outro is as spectacular as the song’s final line is impossibly corny. A Short Album About Love, recorded live with the Brunel Ensemble at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, is probably the album that best fits this week’s set-up, with the additional musicians filling the sound out to maximalist proportions. Hannon claims it “might not be the finest body of work, but it’s really fucking lovely to sing”. Given its length, he’s also promised “a few extras” afterwards, and goads the audience about not liking it when he talks about the records – safe in the knowledge that fans here for five consecutive nights like nothing more. Someone, If… and If I Were You (I’d Be Through With Me) come and go to much applause, the audience quite giddy with getting these numbers one after the other. I’m All You Need is glorious, closed out by Hannon crawling slowly off stage to the seemingly endless “and on”s. It rightly brings about a standing ovation.
But it’s in the encore that the deep dive into rarities, hoped for by so many present, kicks in. Skeet and Hannon return to play the Neil Tennant-produced Noël Coward cover I’ve Been To A Marvellous Party, and it’s absolutely brilliant, word perfect quickfire delivery tying together the piano-led Coward era verses with the Tennant pop dancefloor choruses. Surely Uncle Noël himself would at this raise a glass of gin and wave it generally in the direction of the Barbican. On which note, Gin Soaked Boy, a rarely played list song which appeared on Hannon’s first best of A Secret History, follows, and just when the audience might assume they’ve had enough extra-curricular treats for one evening, up strikes a gloriously tongue in cheek orchestral introduction of – of all things! – My Lovely Horse, from Father Ted. At almost every Divine Comedy gig someone heckles for this track – well, here it is. (In this run, heckles for My Lovely Horse get replaced with shouts for Office Politics; the rebuttals are the same.) Foreverland’s To The Rescue – its outro curiously of a piece with Theme From Casanova – extends the gorgeousness, and Tonight We Fly is the icing on the cake for what is surely the perfect Divine Comedy gig.
Fin de Siècle and Regeneration
All of which meant that the remaining nights had much to live up to. While they’d not scale a peak quite like that again, it transpired there’d be different summits to reach, something Fin de Siècle’s titular Thrillseeker would surely know about. Following the overly familiar Generation Sex, it is one of this turn-of-the-century album’s lesser played tracks, as is the gorgeous Commuter Love. Sweden was first played live with a gong on stage, and sounds like it needs something heavy and loud to bash in the chorus. But Hannon self-deprecatingly brings a triangle to this particular fight: “I couldn’t find an anvil.” As for Eric The Gardener, which he describes as “an odd one – as if the last one wasn’t!” he offers advice: “In the enormously long outro, just try and think of geological time…” During it he wanders off and sits in the audience, perhaps to do just that – or to enjoy his band playing his music.
Returning with apologies for having “to play a really obscure one”, aka National Express – ridiculously The Divine Comedy’s highest charting and only Top 10 single – he involves the front row of the audience in singing back the title, and it’s all as jolly as the coach’s hostess. Life On Earth brings a quite different mood, the cello and piano central duet offsetting the militaristic drumming, while The Certainty Of Chance – with full orchestral outro – also enjoys near perfect sound. Here Comes The Flood’s satire of rolling news networks, complete with an armageddon race, wasn’t meant to be prophetic, Hannon tells us wistfully – and yet in 2022, here we all are. But it’s the short and to the point Sunrise that causes weeping. Summarising his birth, growth and flight from Northern Ireland during the Troubles but ending with the “ray of hope” that was the Good Friday Agreement, the song is especially poignant with a Westminster government threatening to break it, and Stormont free from a functioning executive. Wisely, Hannon lets the song’s lyrics say it all without further embellishment.
Fin de Siècle’s release brought to an end a century and an indie label contract. Its follow-up, Regeneration, began another, with Hannon now signed to a major, Parlophone. For this album he brought in Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, involved the band in the writing and grew his hair long. By the end of the campaign he’d let the band go, and by the next album he’d visited a barber. In retrospect it’s easy to consider Regeneration as a rare wrong turn, but it does contain some good songs in among the gloom and ploddy pacing, and after mournful opening number Timestretched, Bad Ambassador gets toes tapping.
When it was released as a single, Hannon tells us, the label made a video for it in America; he never understood what it was about: “Thank you Parlophone for all of your money. It was good while it lasted.” Perfect Lovesong, with its “divine Beatles bassline and a big old Beach Boys sound”, kinda is. Other tracks fare less well, lyrical nous notwithstanding. Eye Of The Needle, in which Skeet’s keys pleasingly mimic a church organ, is another of those thought-provoking religious observationals that pepper this son of a bishop’s career. Its ponderous beat and mournful atmosphere is shared with the briefly explosive and expletive Note To Self, list song Lost Property, career advice number Love What You Do and the intellectually despairing Dumb it Down. Mastermind (he reminds us he won Celebrity Mastermind) is a bright spot: “That’s a good song,” he rightly declares. The title track is a slow burner, but by the time The Beauty Regime comes round the soporific mood has set in.
Just as well then that the encore brings us two tracks from Promenade to beat away the Regeneration blues. When The Lights Go Out All Over Europe and (perhaps inevitably) Tonight We Fly respectively co-opt the narratives of Jules Et Jim and The Snowman, and remind us that Hannon is a great media interpreter as well as singer, and that the album we’d just heard, while important to his canon, is not especially representative of it.
Absent Friends and Victory For The Comic Muse
The title track of the mixed bag that is Absent Friends starts the penultimate evening with a bang. Placing Hannon amid a pantheon of historical figures from Steve McQueen via Laika the space dog to Oscar Wilde, with swirling orchestral arrangements that call to mind his hero Scott Walker as much as big vista westerns, it’s a mood setter. But like most of his albums, this one ranges far and wide in tempo and theme while finding the sublime in the everyday. Leaving Today is a case in point; Hannon talks of how he wrote it about leaving his daughter Willow 20 years ago, and notes “she’s at university now, and cleverer than me”. The emotive arrangement takes an unremarkable event and writes it as a revelatory musical drama in the way Hannon’s best songs so often brilliantly do. “A couple of the notes don’t want to come out today,” he jokes, but “Billy Bird will be fine as it’s mostly low…”
He gets out a Speak & Spell for My Imaginary Friend and tries to make it say things when it should. To much laughter, this fails. He gives the offending device to someone in the audience and is asked whether he’ll not be needing it in Paris? “I’m not trying it in Paris, they’d be livid!” He recants: “You know I love the French, they’ve kept me in business for 30 years…” And well they might, for the astonishing centrepiece of the album Our Mutual Friend zooms in on a perfectly commonplace evening of drinks, music, dancing and a subsequent drunken hook-up, the arrangement glorying in the banal of the situation which, from the point of view of the protagonist, is romance, drama and the centre of all things. As the two-minute instrumental outro soars wordlessly on over broken-hearted sentiment, it makes the case for being The Divine Comedy in microcosm: technical brilliance, flawless narration, a very long note, culture-vulture name-checks and orchestral sound reminiscent of the ‘60s rather than 2004, when this album was released.
The remainder of the album has a lot to do to match it, but each of these vignettes reveals more of Hannon’s scaffolding. The Wreck Of The Beautiful sounds like a lost cut from Regeneration, ponderous and maudlin. Freedom Road reminds of his Kraftwerk influence, despite being all American. The instrumental Laika’s Theme is gorgeous; it’s easy to picture the Soviet space dog gazing at a disappearing Earth as she enters orbit, never to return. And in Charmed Life Hannon shows not for the first time that he can make a completely sentimental song that works brilliantly.
If Absent Friends is a mixed bag, Victory For The Comic Muse is “a crazy mixed up child,” according to its creator. Titles for some of his albums were obvious straight away, but not this one. Jiggery Pokery, he tells us, was an early option (that would eventually become a quite brilliant song on cricket pop side project The Duckworth Lewis Method’s first album). The line is taken from Hannon’s favourite film, Merchant-Ivory’s adaptation of EM Forster’s A Room With A View, which he’d already sampled in Liberation’s Death Of A Supernaturalist and Promenade’s The Booklovers. Literary snippets don’t stop there: The Camomile Lawn provides the opening sample for To Die A Virgin, which ends with heckles of praise. Blushing a little, he says to tell him how much we love him for 10 seconds, counts them down, stops. No more of that embarrassing stuff, now.
Mother Dear was written for a film: “I gave it a go and they didn’t like it.” Their loss is our gain, for this song’s lyrics bring both happy and sad moments to bear. A Lady Of A Certain Age is unimprovable of course, as one of the very best songs Hannon has ever written. Threesome is short and sweet as Skeet, accordionist Ian Watson and second guitarist John Evans get together on piano. Party Fears Two is the only cover he ever put on an album, which he explains by saying he had an out of body experience watching its creators The Associates on Top Of The Pops. It sounds like a prototype Divine Comedy track. Count Grassi’s Passage Over Piedmont he sings seated, but even so this whimsical tale of two balloonists floating serenely across the heavens is gorgeously uplifting. He tries to explain Snowball In Negative as rolling down a hill and getting smaller. “All through this short life we give and give and slowly diminish” is an observation of the human condition, one of several he has made across his career. The encore starts with Gin Soaked Boy, and then the audience are given a choice of National Express or Tonight We Fly. They choose correctly, and off over the rooftops we go for the fourth consecutive night, musing on this era’s sadly unplayed B-sides.
Bang Goes The Knighthood and Foreverland
Bang Goes The Knighthood, his first post-major label album, offers a couple of decidedly political tracks, starting with The Complete Banker, about the financial crash of 2008, with its Margaret Thatcher reference and warning for the future when “I’ll come round again”, after which he wishes us well with our new leader, to several boos. The title track’s focus on the late Max Mosley’s sexual foibles presents its subject as a tragic figure worthy of sympathy. Neapolitan Girl lightens things despite its rather peculiar milieu of post-war Naples. The band expands by one as Hannon’s other half Cathy Davey shows up for backing vocals on At The Indie Disco: in the audience, women both solo and in duos rise unbidden to sashay along, while Have You Ever Been In Love’s “someone else’s eyes” line provokes a misty eyed moment.
Hannon explains how the next track, Assume The Perpendicular, recycles a very old song, October, and bassist Simon Little’s random reggae ending when it all fell apart he thought it was cool and so left it in. For The Lost Art Of Conversation the audience is asked to do the outro as a hubbub of conversation, and thousands of people happily acquiesce in the moment. “Have I ever told you you’re the best fans an artist could ever have?” he asks, without saying it. For Island Life, Davey returns, this time duetting sweetly with her beau, a forerunner of songs post-interval. Can You Stand Upon One Leg is just silly, but done well, with the party-piece long note present and correct and justly bringing about much applause.
Post-interval, Foreverland’s opening track Napoleon Complex finds Davey again on backing vocals. But Hannon has a problem with Catherine The Great: “I don’t know which is worse, to talk about my girlfriend, or Russian power. Just ignore the lyrics and enjoy the music…” She’s there again on the duet Funny Peculiar, which works so well with the orchestral treatment of these shows. The Pact, describing their relationship in historical terms, is pretty and sweet, but To The Rescue is this album’s stone cold classic; its subject matter (Davey, and her My Lovely Horse Rescue animal charity) being in the building gives it an extra oomph even before the sublime horn solo takes it to the sky.
How Can You Leave Me On My Own has the whole place up on its feet, but I Joined The Foreign Legion – “open brackets” – To Forget – “close brackets” – has everyone sitting again. “I think you’re right!” jokes Hannon. Tosh unleashes some between songs banter in French, adding to the end-of-school vibe of the evening, with Skeet earlier brandishing a glass of red on news he’s not allowed to get drunk like Hannon. All of which goes some way to balance this album’s more lovey-dovey aspects. Happy Place “is quite difficult, forgive us if we fuck it up”; they don’t though, and I’m A Desperate Man’s full force arrangement is great. The One Who Loves You concludes an album which, despite containing some of his least interesting lyrics, shows off some musically impeccable high points.
The series’ final encore allows a second airing of My Lovely Horse, followed by a rousing Generation Sex, lengthy thanks to all including flowers for Skeet, and then Tonight We Fly, but of course.
Purchasers of the box set might have hoped for more rarities across this residency from it, or even from the bonus third disc of this year’s slimmed down Charmed Life: The Best Of The Divine Comedy. But given the band prepared 113 songs already for this run it’d be churlish to have expected more this time round. Perhaps the next tour could be more of a deep dive into the far reaches of Hannon’s considerable and fascinating hinterland, so many of which only saw the light of day on the box set. For now though, these five extraordinarily generous nights have, like Hannon himself, done very nicely in highlighting an exceptional career, and created lasting memories. As the show moves to Paris, the temptation to do it all again is real indeed.
• The Divine Comedy play Thirty Years Of The Divine Comedy at Cité de la Musique, Paris from 19-23 September 2022.
• The box set Venus, Cupid, Folly & Time and the double album Charmed Life: The Best Of The Divine Comedy are out now through Divine Comedy Records.
• Further information can be found at thedivinecomedy.com